Latest update: November 25th, 2013
Two months ago, the Pew Research Center issued a comprehensive study of American Jews and ever since the American Jewish community has been debating the findings. I have contributed my share to this debate, which concerns matters of critical importance.
Pew is regarded as the outstanding center for demographic or population research in the U.S. Its work is highly professional and covers a vast range of subjects. For good reason, its data are carefully scrutinized by government agencies and the media, as well as in academia. We know more about socio-economic trends in this country as a consequence of the objectivity and careful preparation that go into each Pew project.
There is much that is commendable in the report on American Jews. In a sense, the main finding is that as a people we are far less religious than used to be the case and that the process of secularization is dynamic, meaning that when the next major population survey comes around, perhaps in a decade or less, the findings will show American Jewry more removed from any sense of religiosity than it was in 2013.
As one illustration, although for nearly a quarter of a century (or ever since the National Jewish Population Survey of 1990) we have been aware of a frighteningly high rate of intermarriage, Pew documents that outside of Orthodox life the rate for recently married American Jews is now in the seventy percent range. The consequences are enormous and while they may not be felt immediately or even in the near future, ultimately they will take an enormous toll – this despite the pseudo-scholarship of those who somehow view the data as good tidings.
A determined effort is underway to put a good face on the bad news. It is claimed that intermarriage is not as harmful to Jewish continuity as we Orthodox and some others claim. The online magazine Tablet posted an essay last week titled “New Analysis of Pew Data: Children of Intermarriage Increasingly Identify as Jews.” The article informs us that “Pew’s own data show that the growth of the unaffiliated population is the result of the unexpected tendency of most young adults with intermarried parents to identify as Jewish. Instead of a growing population of young adults raised in Jewish households opting out, there appears to be a trend of young adults raised in non-Jewish or partly Jewish households opting in.”
This is bad history, bad sociology, bad demography and a frightening distortion of Judaism. But precisely because intermarriage has spread – and spread it has, as well, to many who are influential in Jewish life – there is an impulse to sugarcoat the bad news. This impulse first took root after NJPS 1990. As the rate of intermarriage has grown, so too has grown the impulse to define intermarriage as not necessarily bad or perhaps even good news.
Pew claims that there are about 6.5 million American Jews, a figure that is considerably higher than what the National Jewish Population Survey showed a decade ago but also somewhat lower than what other demographers, particularly at Brandeis University, have claimed about American Jewry. The disparity in estimates – and that’s what they are for all of the scientism that accompanies our population reports – arises in large measure from the question of who to count as a Jew or, perhaps more precisely, who may be regarded as a Jew in a household that is identified as Jewish. Intermarriage obviously comes into the equation, as does the vexatious question of whether to include persons who were born Jewish but who say that they are not.
It needs to be underscored that for purposes of population research, one Jewish parent – whether the father or mother – is sufficient to establish Jewish identity, provided that the individual self-identities as Jewish. Although it is not in the published report, Pew’s research indicates that there are 2.1 million Americans who have had one or two Jewish parents and yet are not included in the statistics of American Jewry, either because they say they are Christian or adhere to another religion or that they have no religion and do not consider themselves Jewish. This is an astonishing number that is certain to grow.
This statistic also sheds light on the awesome toll exacted over the past century or more as a consequence of Judaic abandonment. I believe the number of Americans with Jewish ancestry, including those who acknowledge it and those who do not, in large measure because they are not even aware of their ancestry, is probably at least fifteen million.
The upshot of all this is that if we cast the net broadly, Jewish population has inched up over the years, to an extent because of the arrival of Russian Jews and also Israelis. If we cast the net narrowly, what comes into play is the loss of those who have totally abandoned any sense of Jewish identity.
However we calculate and whatever the numbers, it is certain that much of American Jewry is skating on thin Jewish ice. The cracks are there, they are spreading, and the toll will be evident down the road. Even when we consider those who have intermarried and say they continue to identify as Jews, the prognosis is devastating. According to Professor Steven Cohen, a key figure in the Pew research, about 40 percent of the children of intermarriages identify as Jewish, yet more than 80 percent marry non-Jews. Just 8 percent of the grandchildren of the intermarried will marry Jews.
For all our rejection of intermarriage, when it comes to population studies and key communal matters there is more than a dose of ambivalence about how to treat the intermarried and their offspring. For understandable reasons, Israel urgently prefers a high estimate of the number of American Jews, the notion being that this increases our influence in Washington. Even among the Orthodox, in our communal interactions as well as our discussion of demographic research there is no rush to exclude those who have married out and their children.
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Pew focuses heavily on the Orthodox, despite its data showing that we are no more than 10 percent of all American Jews. The justification for this attention is that we are the most committed and that irrespective of what our numbers might be now, they are certain to grow because of high fertility. The fertility rate for the non-Orthodox is 1.7 children per two Jews, significantly below the zero population growth rate of 2.1 children. Because of low fertility alone it is estimated that in the next generation the number of Jews will decline by somewhere between 15 and 20 percent.
Pew divides the Orthodox into three segments – Modern, yeshivish and chassidic – something that it does not do for Reform Jews, although it reports that the Reform are three and a half times more numerous than the Orthodox, a statistic that borders on the nonsensical. All Orthodox who do not self-identify as Modern are in the other two categories which have the additional appellation of “ultra,” a term I regard as scientifically bogus and ethically flawed.
Much of the controversy that has erupted over Pew concerns the high attrition rate for the Orthodox, meaning the number who were raised Orthodox and no longer identify as such. There are also a startling number of self-identifying Orthodox who say they handle money on Shabbos and do much else that would strike any of us as not kosher. This seems absurd, as do the statistics showing that a substantial number of those who say they are Orthodox indicate that occasionally they go to non-Jewish houses of worship. A number of commentators have pointed out that this just cannot be.
The problem is that it could be, at least to an extent, under Pew’s definition of Orthodoxy which is predicated entirely on self-identity. A person is Orthodox if he/she so claims, irrespective of behavior and beliefs.
I have been involved over several decades in population research in Israel where the crucial criterion to determine whether a person is haredi or dati is whether the person fulfills the mitzvos. Pew believes that self-identity is the approach that demographers must take in the U.S. This is perhaps acceptable, provided that it comes with the caveat that many who self-identify as Orthodox are, in practice, not Orthodox. These are individuals who invariably belong to an Orthodox synagogue because they believe there is no other synagogue they should belong to. This phenomenon is apparent in the Sephardic community where those who are not particularly observant have not followed the Ashkenazic route of creating Conservative and Reform denominations.
As an illustration of this point, in response to comments on Pew that I posted on a major Jewish website, the retired rabbi of an Orthodox congregation in the South wrote that his “Orthodox congregation has a large and loyal membership. But aside from a handful of old local families, Jewish communal professionals and teachers and kollel members…the overwhelming number of members are not at all observant. Even the lay leadership at the shul are to be found in the best local non-kosher restaurants. Barbeque and seafood are favorites. On the HH [High Holiday] days and a very few Sabbaths of the year, as a non-observant member you can park your car on the surrounding streets, block driveways and then walk a discrete distance to your Orthodox congregation.”
Accordingly, the real attrition rate, meaning people who have been Orthodox in practice but who have abandoned religious life, is far smaller than Pew suggests. This should not be an occasion for smugness within Orthodox ranks. Even if we remove from the Pew data the marginal Orthodox who are not religious in practice, the attrition rate is too high. I believe nearly all of us have had classmates and/or friends and/or relatives raised fully Orthodox who are no longer observant.
Of course, much of this has to do with the openness of American society. The more open or tolerant a society, the greater the capacity for persons to walk away from their roots. The United States is an open and generally tolerant society and it is quite easy for Jews to walk away from any sense of Jewishness and to join the great American melting pot. This is true of other ethnic groups, the single major exception being blacks, for whom race is obviously a powerful barrier against massive assimilation. Every white ethnic group in America has experienced greater assimilation and abandonment than American Jews. But we American Jews are getting there because, as noted, the intermarriage rate for the non-Orthodox in the recent period has been 70 percent.
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Pew also discloses that there is no more than minimal movement toward Orthodoxy among those who were not raised Orthodox. This is another way of saying that the statistics of kiruv are disappointing. Spiritually saving a single Jewish life is a noble achievement. The problem with American kiruv is not that the numbers are small but that the approach is not calculated to bring about good results. Kiruv organizations and activities constantly and intensively focus on fundraising and public relations.
The kiruv data also raise – or should raise – questions about Chabad, which is today a massive presence in American Jewish life. There are hundreds of Chabad institutions, thousands of full-time Chabad workers and hundreds of thousands of American Jews who interact each year with Chabad. If the statistics on Judaic abandonment are correct and the parallel statistics of paltry Jewish kiruv are correct, there needs to be self-examination on the part of Chabad as to what is being achieved.
I am beginning a fourth comprehensive census of yeshivas and day schools in the United States, a project I undertake every five years. In the 1990s, when this research was first undertaken, enrollment in kiruv and immigrant schools was more than double what it is today. At least as telling, there were a fair number of students from marginally observant homes in many yeshivas and day schools. Nowadays there are few such students, as our schools are reluctant to accept students who come from homes that do not meet the expected standard of observance.
Today there is a disconnect between kiruv and chinuch, something I decried in a speech about fifteen years ago at Torah Umesorah. This disconnect has meant that kiruv operates as a separate activity and that chinuch is abandoned as an instrumentality for kiruv. There is no better formula for guaranteeing that kiruv activities will achieve disappointing results.
I have no illusions about the challenges faced by those in kiruv and chinuch. The reality is that even with the best outreach to non-affiliated and marginally observant families, American Jewry is certain to experience overwhelming losses. What is disheartening is that there are families that can be reached and this is not happening, in large measure because of the disconnect between kiruv and chinuch.
Our organizations can do a better job and yeshivas and day schools must do a better job. They must come to reject the rejectionist spirit that turns away students who do not fully meet the religious standards the school promotes. Too many schools and too many principals fail to see the Judaic potential in students. They fail to see because they do not want to see that there are students who come from marginal homes where there is a determination to grow at least incrementally in Jewish commitment. Our schools want perfect students and this quest epitomizes what is imperfect in too many of those schools.
As I wrote years ago in this space, if Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Eliezer HaGadol would come to us as they were before they embraced religious life, overwhelmingly our schools would turn them down because they were not sufficiently frum.
About the Author: Dr. Marvin Schick has been actively engaged in Jewish communal life for more than sixty years. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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